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Senate Democrats set the stage for action on multiple fronts

The two biggest priorities for Democrats in 2022 are Build Back Better and the Freedom to Vote Act. Both efforts face long odds but still have a chance.

At this point two weeks ago, the Democrats' Build Back Better agenda was effectively dead. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia announced on Fox News that he wouldn't back the legislation; the White House was apoplectic; and the intra-party recriminations were well under way.

But the door wasn't completely closed. President Joe Biden took incremental steps to keep the negotiations going, and Politico reported on Dec. 22, "[F]or the first time since Manchin blew up everything, we are hearing some notes of optimism from Democratic senators."

It was against this backdrop that Axios reported overnight:

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is open to reengaging on the climate and child care provisions in President Biden's Build Back Better agenda if the White House removes the enhanced child tax credit from the $1.75 trillion package — or dramatically lowers the income caps for eligible families, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

It's still difficult to envision what a final deal might look like, but the fact that the talks are ongoing reinforces the impression that the BBB package has a pulse. Axios' report added the conservative West Virginian remained "in touch with senior White House officials over the holidays."

For Democrats and those who might benefit from the Build Back Better agenda, difficult negotiations are preferable to no negotiations.

As for the rest of the Democratic plans for the near future, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sent a letter to his members this morning, leaving little doubt that the New York Democrat isn't scaling back his ambitions when it comes to voting rights.

Schumer's rhetorical evolution has been subtle and gradual in recent months, but today's message to the Senate Democratic Conference was lacking in subtlety. From the letter:

"The Senate was designed to protect the political rights of the minority in the chamber, through the promise of debate and the opportunity to amend. But over the years, those rights have been warped and contorted to obstruct and embarrass the will of majority — something our Founders explicitly opposed. The constitution specified what measures demanded a supermajority — including impeachment or the ratification of treaties. But they explicitly rejected supermajority requirements for legislation, having learned firsthand of such a requirement's defects under the Articles of Confederation. The weaponization of rules once meant to short-circuit obstruction have been hijacked to guarantee obstruction. We must ask ourselves: if the right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, then how can we in good conscience allow for a situation in which the Republican Party can debate and pass voter suppression laws at the state level with only a simple majority vote, but not allow the United States Senate to do the same?"

That need not be a rhetorical question.

Schumer went on to argue that the Senate has evolved many times and quoted the late Sen. Robert Byrd arguing that the institution's rules "must be changed to reflect changed circumstances." Today's letter went on to quote Byrd saying, "Congress is not obliged to be bound by the dead hand of the past."

The reference was almost certainly not accidental: Byrd was a political giant in West Virginia, and Manchin has said many times he looks up to the late senator — whose seat he now holds — and tries to honor Byrd's legacy.

Schumer concluded his letter by telling Democratic senators that if the Republican minority refuses to allow action on voting rights, the Senate "will debate and consider changes to Senate rules on or before January 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to protect the foundation of our democracy: free and fair elections."

Before members left Capitol Hill for their holiday break, there was evidence of meaningful momentum. I confirmed with Senate sources this morning that meetings on potential rules changes happened over the break, and those discussions are set to continue this week.

This is not to say that voting rights advocates should get their hopes up. That would be unwise. Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has already suggested she will continue to stand in the way of procedural progress on this issue, and while Manchin has participated in negotiations, there's no guarantee that he'll prioritize our democracy over the Senate's filibuster rules.

That said, the two biggest legislative priorities for the Democratic majority in 2022 are Build Back Better and the Freedom to Vote Act. Both efforts face tough hurdles, and may yet fail, but party leaders clearly aren't yet ready to quit on either bill.

Postscript: For those who watch Capitol Hill closely, I'll just add that the Senate was scheduled to vote today on one of the president's circuit court nominees. Due to snow in the nation's capital, that vote has been delayed until tomorrow. Tomorrow will also be the first in-person Senate Democratic Conference meeting since Manchin's Fox News appearance on Dec. 19.